Saturday, July 31, 2010

Remembering Comprehensive Exams

Last night, we went out to celebrate a friend and colleague who passed her Comprehensive Exams. It took me back to my own days of Comprehensive Exams.

I spent the summer of 1991 writing my dissertation and studying for Comps. Summers were tough for grad students. Our grad assistantships ended in May, and we cobbled together work while cutting down expenses as best we could.

My husband and I didn't use our air conditioner. It made our electric bill unaffordable. So I would get up and write in the cool of the morning, and then, as the day and the apartment heated up, I'd shift to reading and sketching out notes for Comps.

The English department at the University of South Carolina gave us a test bank. Two questions (or was it four?) would come from the 20 question test bank, and two (or four?) would be brand new. I spent the whole summer pondering the test bank questions (one bank for nineteenth century British Lit, and one for twentieth century British Lit).

I also spent the summer reading and rereading "The Waste Land." By the end of summer, I decided that my test taking strategy would be to avoid discussing "The Waste Land" in any sort of detail at all.

As I recall, the Comprehensive exams were held on a Tuesday and a Wednesday in early October. We showed up to a conference room, wearing comfortable clothes, and we sat there, writing by hand, all day. We couldn't use notes, books, or a dictionary. It was just us, our brains and our hands, and the paper.

How life has changed. My friend who passed her Comps also received questions, but she had a week to write them. She could use any resources she wanted, provided, of course, that she used proper citation and documentation. She could have other people proofread, which I did. And then, she sent them in electronically.

When I finished my written Comps, I felt fabulous about what I wrote. But I also felt terrified. I had gotten questions that were perfect for my interests and my knowledge. If I didn't pass, I couldn't imagine that I'd have circumstances that were any more favorable the next time.

And then, the waiting, the agonized waiting. I remember getting the phone call that the results were in our campus mailbox. My spouse and I headed to campus in the late afternoon of a late October day. We took the unopened envelope outside, to the back of the building, so that if the results were bad, fewer people would see me crying.

I opened the envelope--success! I whooped and hollered and my husband hugged me hard. I felt such a sense of euphoria.

A month later, I felt a similar sense of euphoria when I passed my Orals. My friend and I went to the Fresh Market (an upscale precursor to Whole Foods and that ilk), and we bought anything we wanted. Anything. We went home with gourmet coffee and gourmet chocolate and goodies from the bakery and candies and all sorts of treats.

Dissertation writing and defending was a different thing, long and drawn out with lots of revisions and the exhaustion that comes from trying to shape a piece of writing into something that all the members of the committee wanted. By the end of that process, I had gone on to my first full-time teaching job, and I didn't feel euphoria or even that sense of success, so much as I just felt relief to be done. I kept thinking about Vietnam and wars of attrition.

I was very young then, only 27 years old. I wonder if that writing process would feel different to me now, if I went through a grad program and wrote a dissertation again. I like to think that I've been through so many writing projects now that it wouldn't feel like such a drama. I like to think I wouldn't feel so persecuted. I like to think that I would get notes for revision and thoughtfully consider them as I worked to make my work stronger.

My friend who just passed her comps still has dissertation writing ahead of her. But she's got a great idea and she's already done some research. I almost envy her. But I'm also happy to have my time free to work on the writing projects that I want to do these days. I wish I had more time to do them. I look back on that last year of grad school, and I'm amazed at how much time I had, time to focus on my thoughts, whole days, several of them a week, with nothing expected than that I would be working on my dissertation. That's such a rarity these days. I'm lucky to carve out 45 minutes here, 20 minutes there. But bit by bit, the work gets done.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Happy Birthday, Emily Bronte!

Today is Emily Bronte's birthday. I remember the first semester I taught Wuthering Heights. I was teaching an upper level Brit Lit class, and overall, it was probably the best class I ever taught. When I remember teaching Wuthering Heights, I remember one woman gushing about how romantic Heathcliff was. Several women in the class turned to the gusher in disbelief.

I asked, "Did you read the book or just watch the movie?"

She confessed that she hadn't read the book. But I already knew that. No one who reads the book sees Heathcliff as someone you'd want to be involved with, at least no one in my generation.

I am fascinated by the Bronte sisters, or I should clarify, since there were five Bronte girls, that I'm fascinated by the three of whom survived to adulthood. I'm fascinated by their childhood practices of creating whole imaginary worlds.

I'm most fascinated by the abusive patterns that we find in the works of Charlotte and Emily Bronte. Heathcliff, for example, acts just like we'd expect an abuser to act. He kills and ruins everything that his wife, Isabella, holds dear; most memorably, he hangs her puppy as they're leaving to get married (or was it as they're leaving on their honeymoon?). She's been warned.

I remember reading Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre in a Victorian novel class in graduate school and thinking, how fascinating--the abusers act just like we know abusers act and the victims act just like we know victims act--and these women wrote before we had years of sociological research to help them understand. When I was in graduate school, these novels were often treated as fantastical, Gothic-tinged romances.

So, in my dissertation, I set out to explore this strain of realism, in the form of domestic violence, in so many late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century gothic works. I'm still mostly proud of that dissertation. Occasionally I wonder if I should have done more with it, but I would have needed to write at least 150 more pages to turn it into a book--and I just didn't have that much more to say.

So, Emily Bronte, today I raise my glass to you. Thank you for being so fiercely loyal to your literary visions. Thank you for blazing that trail and leaving it free and clean for future female writers.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A World Made by Computers and a World Made by Hand

Yesterday, my day was book-ended by administrative duties of the best kind, observations of faculty in action. I'm always happy to leave my office.

In the morning, I watched a Computer teacher teach about operating systems. In talking about the functions of Cut, Copy, Paste, and how they came to have those names, she talked about the old newspaper business, where people actually cut the text into strips and laid them onto layout sheets.

Ah yes, I remember those days. In my student journalism days, we gathered together to do precisely that as we got the Newberry Indian ready to go to the Newberry Observer offices, where the paper would be printed on huge presses. It was a thrilling process, even though I always cut myself at least once with those X-acto knives.

I remember the first time I did layout on a Mac, and what a revelation it was. We worked in the PR office, and my friend Michael had persuaded them that they needed an Apple. In the after hours, we laid out the student literary journal on that Mac. It was astonishingly easy. I knew that I was glimpsing the future, but I had no idea of the ways that those computing abilities would change us all.

At the end of the day, I went with a class on a field trip to Girl's Club, a gallery, where we saw an exhibit of authors who created their works by hand, mostly. The works were a mix of exquisite--one woman etched shapes with a silver wire into a surface of titanium white and the resulting silver swirls were amazing. She said it took over 500 hours.

There was one piece that was a collection of small, clear jars stuffed with yarn and other trinkets, like a wooden spool in one jar, a string of shells in another. From a distance, it looked like leftover paint. Up close, I found myself captivated.

The whole show captivated me, with its different textures, its bright colors, its interesting conglomerations of objects. One piece was flattened silver (platters, teapots, baskets, flatware) hanging from fishing line from the ceiling. One piece had a lot of layers, cut away and covered, with a variety of colors and textures. One piece had lots of creatures and wreaths made out of yarn scraps and fabric scraps and found items.

If you're in South Florida, you've got until September 30 to see the show, although the gallery is closing for the month of August. Go here for more information.

The show made me want to pull out my yarn and fabric scraps, to see what I could do if I did something more tactile. Of course, the fact that my computer is still not right doesn't inspire me to want to do much more on it. Fiber never betrays me the way that electronics can.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Celebrate Sprung Rhythm Today

Today is the birthday of Gerard Manley Hopkins. In many ways, he reminds me of Emily Dickinson. They're both poets who seem to prefigure a future world of poetry (Dickinson, our modern poetic world, Hopkins, the Modernists). They're both poets who seem to be living more intensely (and sometimes more miserably) than their fellow humans. They're both poets of intense importance, but as a teacher, I have trouble helping students see why so many people are so enthusiastic about their work.

I never read much Hopkins when I was in school. He was still a mostly forgotten poet when I was in undergraduate school, and my graduate training left a hole where the Late Victorians should be (and he's an early Late Victorian; there's really no excuse). I turned to Hopkins in a sort of desperation when I taught a Late Victorian Literature class a few years ago and realized how few poets I could draw on. My students, for the most part, hated him. Why would they hate him and not someone like Wordsworth? I have no idea. Probably for the same reason that Hopkins' contemporaries didn't like his work. They found it weird.

Or maybe they found his personal life offputting. Here's a guy who kept going to further and further extremes. He leaves the Anglican church to become Catholic, and then he decides to become a priest, and then he embraces the hard-core Jesuits. The Writer's Almanac website puts it this way in today's post: "Even among a campus full of Jesuit seminarians in rural Wales, he earned a reputation for being particularly odd and eccentric." He was never really happy, with his work or his life or his setting; he spent much of his life miserable as he tried to teach inner city youth around Britain. Like Wordsworth, he never recovered from an early life immersed in nature--unlike Wordsworth, he never really found a physical environment that suited him as a grown up.

Last summer, I read Exiles by Ron Hansen, a book about Hopkins and his obsession with the sinking of the Deustschland, a ship with five young nuns aboard. It's a small book, only 212 pages, a haunting book. It gives a fascinating look into the lives of poets and the lives of people living in religious orders. It makes me glad to be alive in our current age of central heating. It makes me look at my life and wonder if all the passion has drained out of it.

Of course, Hopkins' life serves as a cautionary tale against adopting the idea that poets should lead emotionally tempestuous lives. Hopkins died of typhus at age 44, which leaves many of us to wonder what would have happened had he lived longer, or how his work might have evolved had he found more satisfactory living conditions. A boring, stable outer life gives us space and time to write. A tempestuous life might give us more to write about, but less circumstances in which to do it.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Numbers and Me

Yesterday, a student who came to my office said, "You used to teach English, didn't you?"

Even though I still teach, those kind of comments cause a brief emotional panic. Yesterday, I wanted to say, "Yes, I used to teach English, but now I do assessment."

Happily, I don't do assessment all the time. But yesterday was one of those days given over almost completely to assessment. Our department has a test that we give graduating students to try to determine how successful we've been in meeting our department objectives (objectives like acquiring communication skills, analytical skills, that kind of thing). Every so often, I need to set down with the test results and crunch some numbers.

Yes, there's probably a computer program that would do it for me, but I'm guessing that inputting the data would take almost as much time as just crunching the numbers myself.

So, much of yesterday, I counted right answers and wrong answers, and then I tried to analyze what it all meant. Should I be upset if only 55% of the graduating students got the Math questions right? Students can do the Math question that deals with measurements, but not the word problems. Should I look at the questions again? I'm resolved to rewriting the test only once a year. On and on I went in this vein.

I went home bleary-eyed and cotton-headed. So, I did what anyone would do: I made a batch of brownies.

Yes, I pulled down my Moosewood Cookbook, with its perfect brownie recipe. How many years have I been making these brownies? Well, almost 30 years, if you really must know. And I've never made a bad batch.

I settled down to my supper of wine and warm brownie bits. Unconventional, sure, but when you've spent countless hours staring at columns of numbers, you deserve a treat.

Today is our quarterly General Education Festival, which has morphed into a huge event, that showcases not only tie-dying, but student clubs, the library, and this month, a hurricane awareness event. Our Culinary Club sells delicious food. It's a wonderful day.

The goal of assessment is to quantify, so that we can be sure that we're actually doing what we say we're doing. The goal of assessment is to attach numbers to goals that could otherwise be vague and theoretical, and to track those numbers, so that we know for sure what we're doing.

A good brownie recipe does the same thing; it takes the abstract and ties it to the earthly realm. So does our tie-dye event.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, my father used to say. As a grown up, I understand far more fully than I did as a child.

Some day, I plan to write a poem about the modern numerology, our faith in numbers and data and quantifiable items, and our belief that we can use those to foretell the future. But not this morning. It's time to start thinking about dyes and how they interact with white fabric!

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Joys of Apocalypse in a Day where the Computer Acts Up

Yesterday was another trying computer day. The virus that haunted my Wednesday was back yesterday morning, so I redid the fix and then the computer wasn't recognizing the mouse. After some fiddling with a different mouse, I got the computer to work oh so slowly.

I went to a Microsoft site and left the computer scanning for viruses while we went to church. When we got back, the screen was frozen. When we turned the computer off and on, no mouse. No fix worked. I was about to lose my cool.

My spouse let me be the one to choose the movie that we'd stream from Netflix. I chose 2012. Yes, I understand all of the scientific stupidness that pervades the movie; you can almost hear the screenwriters saying, "Use the word neutrino. It's such a cool word. No one will know what it means. Who cares whether or not we're accurate!" My spouse noted that in the scene where the man protests he can't possibly fly this plane because he's only flown single engine planes--well, it's a single engine plane in the scene (and later, it's a different plane with more engines--definite continuity issues). I decided to just suspend my disbelief and let the apocalypse wash over me. It suited my doomed mood. How lovely to watch the world go smash on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Throughout the afternoon, I periodically turned the computer on to see if we had mouse function. Nope. Finally, by night, I tried other things, like starting in safe mode and selecting an option that I could toggle down to, the position that told the computer to go back to a time when all the commands were working and the system was configured properly.

Success! And I was able to run some scans from the Microsoft site. This morning, the computer seems to be back to its zippy self, but I won't be surprised if it's just temporary. Still, I'm grateful for the reprieve, even if it turns out to be temporary.

What is it about having computer issues that sends me so quickly to an apocalyptic mood? We've had home repair issues and a condo that we can't sell for many years, and I'm able to keep these things in perspective. But let the computer go wonky and I'm in a state of mad despair in an hour.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Tropical Storms, Fictional Characters, Computer Viruses and Poetry Disruptions

All things considered, I'm considering this past week to be a good creative one. I've solved some issues around a possible linked short story collection, made changes to my book length poetry manuscript (I have several; I've been revising "Ash Wednesday at the Trinity Test Site"), sent out a chapbook manuscript to Cooper Dillon Books, and written blog posts.

However, I haven't written any new poems.

Of course, the week before, I wrote a poem almost every day. And as I always do, during weeks where I write more poems, I thought, Cool, maybe I can keep up this pace.

My creative life is always a balancing act. If I'm writing a lot of new poems, I'm not sending out as many. If I'm working in one genre, other genres take a back seat.

However, in any week where I'm creating, I'm happy. I can always tell when I'm not spending enough time in creative pursuits; I get very snappy with people. When I start to feel cranky and irritable, I try to get back to my desk (or quilt closet or easel or kitchen) as quickly as possible.

I'm especially happy still to be creating in a week like this one. I've had an eye doctor's appointment (healthy--hurrah!), computer disruptions, and a tropical storm. Happily, while my computer is still more sluggish than I'd like, it's usable. The tropical storm whizzed right through; I got to work just before the first band came, and since I knew I had a long work day, I enjoyed the weather, knowing it was likely to improve before I had to drive home. It would have been cozier enjoying it at home, where I could have made scones and watched the wind whipped rain, but my office is pleasant enough. Happily, it was a quiet morning in the office, so I didn't feel trapped.

But in the coming week, I'd like to write a poem or two. I always feel a bit anxious when a week goes by without a poem. I'd hate for my muse to leave forever.

I remember a poem that I wrote long ago, a poem published in Emrys:

The Muse to Her Poet

You worry that I am some Ulysses,
headed off to distant lands the moment you turn
your back, easily seduced by goddesses,
and ever needful of new adventures.

You are the one who sets sail
for the distant island of your novel, sidetracked
from your true vocation by thoughts of the fruits
of fame, the warmth of characters
to put through their paces.
You are the one who often strands
herself on the dry, dusty shores
of academic writing, pursuing the metaphors
and symbols of other poets
while neglecting your own.

I am your muse, your Penelope, waiting
ever, always patient. I weave
even when you’re unaware, distracted
by those undeterred suitors of easier pleasures than mine.
I pluck out the threads that don’t match,
keep the tapestries safe,
keep my faith in your return.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Self Reliance and Fixing Our Computers

I wasn't sure that I'd be writing today. Yesterday afternoon, I returned home after a productive morning at the office and an afternoon swim in a friend's pool. I thought we'd be grilling the beautiful sockeye salmon that I bought on Monday, but my spouse was taking a long, deep nap, after working 18 hours on a municipal budget on Tuesday.

I'm flexible. I thought, oh, good, quiet time to work on some poetry projects. Somehow July has slipped by, and I'm about to miss some submission deadlines if I don't get into gear.

I turned on the computer and--yikes! All sorts of warning messages, from a software package I don't own, warning me of dire infections.

The messages were written in slightly strange syntax, so I was suspicious. I went to the other computer and Googled the suspicious software that I'm sure I was about to be exhorted to buy: Antivirus. Sure enough, my computer had fallen to some sort of malicious awfulness.

I spent hours reading how other people had fixed the problem. Some efforts sounded more complicated than others.

Finally, in the evening, once my spouse awoke from his nap, I started the computer in safe mode (by pushing the F8 key) and did a System Restore. Voila! Problem fixed, at least so far. And I don't think I've lost any data.

Let me take a moment to pause and congratulate myself. Once upon a time, I wouldn't have had a clue when it came to computers. Of course, back then, there wasn't Internet access, so I wouldn't have been subject to as many viruses. Still, I'm glad that I had the presence of mind to try to fix the problem myself. Once, I would have been convinced that I couldn't, convinced that computers are too complicated.

I'm also lucky to live in this time of Google, where I have lots of resources right at my fingertips. Once, if I wanted to fix something myself, I'd have had to go to the library and wade through volumes of books. The vast amount of information can still be overwhelming; I could have spent days reading through all the results of my first Google search. But once I saw information being repeated in various online sources, I assumed I'd uncovered most of the ways to deal with this virus.

I'm still annoyed that it took such a chunk out of my day and ruined my contemplative mood. But I'm happy to be awake and blogging this morning.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Linchpins and Gift Cultures

I can’t decide how I feel about Seth Godin. Most days, I enjoy his blog. Some days, I feel like I’m reading the same blogpost over and over. I recently picked up Linchpin from the library, which was filled with some good stuff and some stuff that seemed so obvious as to not be worth spending time on. Of course, the older I get, the more I realize that information that’s obvious to me isn’t always obvious to everyone else.

And some of the obvious stuff is worth repeating. The section “The Resistance,” about all the mindsets which might sabotage us, is worth reading again and again on a regular basis.

I especially liked his section “The Powerful Culture of Gifts,” a section which seems particularly relevant to poets. Many people have commented on how poetry really seems to be more of a gift economy than anything else. It’s hard to translate poetry into money, but when we move away from wanting to do that, our experiences become that much richer. I’ve met many poets because we’ve written to each other and exchanged books or done readings together. I’ve met many more through their blogs.

Here are some choice quotes from that section:

--“Giving a gift makes you indispensable. Inventing a gift, creating art—that is what the market seeks out, and the givers are the ones who earn our respect and attention. Shepard Fairey didn’t seek to monetize the Obama Hope poster. He gave it away with a single-minded obsession. The more copies he gave away, the closer he came to achieving his political, personal, and professional goals.” (page 151)

--“The magic of the gift system is that the gift is voluntary, not part of a contract. The gift binds the recipient to the giver, and both of them to the community. A contract isolates individuals, with money as the connector. The gift binds them instead.” (page 154)

--“A critical underpinning at AA is that no money changes hands. There’s no central organization collecting dues, no fee to attend a meeting, no payments from one member to another. The act of helping a fellow alcoholic for free has two effects: First it brings the giver and the recipient closer together, creating a tribe. And second, it creates an obligation for the recipient. Not an obligation to reciprocate, because she really can’t and it’s not expected, but an obligation to help the next person. And so the movement grows.” (page 159)

--He talks about the circles in which we move: our friends and families vs. the circles of commerce vs. the circle of our tribe, which we largely have because of the Internet (our Facebook friends, the friends of those friends).

--He reminds us that gifts come back to us in unexpected ways, and we get to enjoy them twice (or more!).

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

When Your Fictional Characters Wake You Up at Night

Well, I haven't experienced this since 2004, the last time I was totally immersed in fiction writing (a novel, unpublished). For the past 4 nights, I've woken up in the middle of the night, either hearing my fictional characters talking to each other or having solved a puzzle of how various characters relate to each other.

I hadn't planned to be working on this project. Once I had a 40-50 hour a week office job, I assumed my days of fiction writing were over. I just didn't feel like I had time to write a novel. And the last short story I wrote was in 2003, and I have only had one short story idea since then (do I exaggerate? perhaps).

Last Monday, I went to the library at school and picked up the latest copy of BOMB. I love that magazine. I read an interview with Jennifer Egan, who wrote the book I can't seem to forget, the book that will likely be the reading highlight of my summer (perhaps the year, perhaps the decade), A Visit from the Goon Squad. You can go here and scroll down to read the first bit.

When asked if she wrote the stories in the order in which they appeared in the collection, she said, "No, not at all. In fact, four of them were written years and years ago. They were just written as stories and published, all four." She continues, "I had no sense that they linked up at all. And then I started working on 'Found Objects,' and it all kind of followed from there in a strange way because I wasn't even planning to work on this book, I was trying to work on my goddamn Brooklyn Navy Yard book, which I still haven't started" (page 84). Later she says, "One of the great moments, for me, was realizing Sasha, from 'Found Objects,' was the same person as the protagonist of 'Good-bye, My Love.' I couldn't believe I had written two stories about women who steal wallets without realizing they were one person" (page 85).

I started thinking about the short stories I've written, about how many of them seem to revolve around the same characters. In fact, there are some people I've resisted looking up on Facebook, because I realize that I'm really searching for the characters I've created based on earlier versions of themselves. Is it fair to launch myself into their lives when I'm really after something else? Philosophical questions for another day.

I've had this realization before, about how many of my characters might be one and the same, and once, on a long, long November drive to Mepkin Abbey, I had this flash of a vision of how I could make my short stories connect into a book of linked stories. But I got home and got stymied.

The interview with Jennifer Egan made me ponder again. On Friday morning, I printed out copies of my two favorite short stories, the favorites of all I've ever written, and took them with me to a meeting. And there, in the midst of meeting madness, I had an epiphany. I figured out how the two stories worked together. I'd been trying to make the 2 male main characters in each story to be the same guy. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The major male character in one story is the transformation of the mousy minor male character in the other story. He goes to college and transforms himself based on the behavior of the main male character.

That realization has made the other stories fall into place; I've spent the whole week-end figuring out timelines and rereading other short stories I've written. I'm surprised at how many of them fit together, as minor characters in one story become main characters in another. I'll have to change some details here and there. But I can make it work.

I'll need to write a few more short stories. But I'm looking forward to it. I love these characters. I love the idea that they could exist in a book. I love the linked short story form, and I've always wanted to write something like The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing. Who knew that I already was?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Celebrate Seneca Falls

Today in 1848, the first U.S. women's rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York. Those of you who are astute observers of history will note that even though the women at that conference called for voting rights, women would not be able to exercise their right to vote until 1920, long after black men were enfranchised. And yes, I am painfully aware that even though we have the right to vote, we may be intimidated enough to stay home or we may go out to vote, only to realize that our votes have never been counted.

What I love about this country is our long arc towards justice. We haven't always gotten it right. It's interesting to read the Declaration of Independence and to realize how many of those signers were wealthy white men. I'm always interested in the risks that those powerful, wealthy white men were willing to take to create the world that they envisioned, a world that was more in line with their values. Think about our current time and tell me how many wealthy, powerful folks are doing the same.

Too few of us live by the Scout motto: "Leave the campsite better than you found it." The Seneca Falls women did.

Those of us who are women owe the Seneca Falls women a debt of gratitude. Where would we be if they had not come together? They faced ridicule at the idea that women were people and should be granted full rights: the right to work, the right to own property, the right to control wealth, the right to vote. Now many of us in the first world enjoy those rights.

Alas, there are many women in the world who have no legal protections at all. Today is also the anniversary of the day that five women were put to death for witchcraft in Salem in 1692. Go here to The Writer's Almanac site and scroll down to read more about the issues that swirled around Salem in the late part of the 17th century--many of us probably had no idea.

It's an interesting juxtaposition of anniversaries, and it serves as a sobering reminder of the importance of securing legal rights--and the importance of creating a society that respects and honors those rights.

Friday, July 16, 2010

We Have Become Death

On this day in 1945, the United States exploded the first atomic bomb. I often forget this anniversary, and frankly, some years, August 6 and August 9, the more famous bomb explosion dates, just slip right by me.

I have nuclear stuff on the brain as I revise my manuscript, "Ash Wednesday at the Trinity Test Site." For those of you currently revising a manuscript, I direct you to Diane Lockward's blog posting, where she talks about what she's learned as a reader for a book contest--fascinating stuff. She talks about making the manuscript smaller. I wonder if I have too many poems in my manuscript. I usually try to keep a book length manuscript around 75 pages total, which includes table of contents and the pages that separate the parts of the book and the acknowledgements, so I don't think she's talking to me. January O'Neil also talks about revising her manuscript for her second book in this post.

I also think of Eavan Boland's comments on the first book, which has in many ways changed from what it used to be. Long ago, the first book would simply be everything a poet had written at a young age. It was only later that books had certain shaping themes or became sophisticated in other ways. She says that most people's first books are actually their second or third books because it takes so long to get the first book published, and people keep revising them. She mourned the loss of those early poems that never see the light of day.

Of course, she wrote about this some time ago, and I wonder if the age of Internet publishing and blogging and other methods of getting our early poems out there have changed this dynamic she describes.

I think about my early poems, which revolved around my family and various ideas of heritage, particularly as manifest in the Southern experience and as women. In short, I wrote a lot of poems about my grandmother. If they had been published early on, I wouldn't be embarrassed by them, but I've moved on.

My formative late adolescence years happened late in the Cold War (although at the time, we didn't know we were at the end of the cold war), where I expected nuclear war any day. I'm still haunted by all sorts of nuclear images.

I think of Oppenheimer watching that explosion. In one book I read, the author states that these scientists were fairly sure what would happen, but not certain. There was some fear that they might somehow ignite the earth's atmosphere and destroy the planet. But they proceeded anyway.

Oppenheimer says that he watched the explosion and thought about The Bhagavad Gita: "I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds." Once we had a crew of guys come to cut down a tree. The leader with the shaved head took off his shirt and tattooed across his back was the same line; it was a big tattoo--I could read it from inside the house. On that same day, from the gay guys' apartment complex on the next street, I could hear disco music, The Village People and Donna Summer, in an endless loop, interrupted by the buzzing chain saws from the tree crew. Some day I'll use these details in a poem or a short story. Or maybe now that I've recorded them in my blog, I won't feel the need to use the details elsewhere.

I love the way that blogging helps me weave all these seemingly disparate strands of thought together in my brain. I love that I can scroll back through my blog for inspiration. I enjoy the idea that I'm engaged in a larger conversation with other people who are blogging, and I can both recommend writing and make a reference for myself for later.

I think that much of our writing, whether it be poetry or blogging or the great American novel or letters to loved ones--and yes, even perhaps the business e-mail--comes out of that impulse to resist death. We want to leave a record that we've been here. We live with the knowledge that everything we love will be lost, as John Dufresne says in The Lie that Tells a Truth. We create our art as an act of resistance.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

In Which I Briefly Consider Becoming a Prose Poet

For those of you who write prose poetry, there's a great sounding contest deadline (July 31) you're about to miss--no entry fee! Go here and scroll down to this part of the White Pines Press website for more details.

I never write prose poems, but I found myself intrigued by the idea of transforming my poems into prose poems by taking all the line breaks out. I even took one of my poems and removed the line breaks, just to see what it looked like.

Let me put in a disclaimer here. I wouldn't have spent two seconds thinking about this if there had been an entry fee.

I spent some time thinking about my poems, thinking about which ones might transform well into poems, and trying to make sure they would go together. I fully planned to create a manuscript by Monday.

I thought it might be an interesting experiment, much the way that creating a formalist manuscript was when I did that a few years ago when Steel Toe Books wanted to see formalist manuscripts. I thought that I might experiment a bit more with line breaks.

In fact, I make my poetry students do something similar to the process that I was considering; I wrote about that in this post from February of 2009.

So, I was all set for this short burst of activity. But then, I woke up yesterday morning with a sense of despair about it. I thought, what if my manuscript gets accepted and these poems are forced to spend their lives in prose poem form? Worse, what if I become really successful (whatever that means) as a prose poet and have to continue to write that way? I'll wait just a moment for your laughing to subside.

I love the prose poem form. It's not about that. But for me, I don't want to give up the power that the construction of the line gives me. So, I decided not to waste my precious time by transforming my work into prose poems.

Something about that noodling on Tuesday must have inspired me. Later yesterday morning, I looked at my "Ash Wednesday at the Trinity Test Site" manuscript and even though I said I wasn't going to do this until November, I spent some time deciding which poems were weak, and which poems might work better in the manuscript.

It was a nice way to spend part of my birthday: looking at poems, strengthening my manuscript. Earlier in the day, I wrote a poem too, inspired by the comment my spouse made on Tuesday. My spouse said he had never seen me eat a plum, so he didn't know if I liked them or not. I thought about 22 years of marriage (5 years of friendship and dating before that), foods eaten and not eaten: since 1983, could I really have never eaten a plum inside of his line of vision? I thought of the William Carlos Williams poem about those plums in the refrigerator that were so sweet and cold. I wrote the kind of workaday poem that doesn't take my breath away, doesn't inspire me to gasp and say "Wow! I wrote that??!!," but instead the kind of low-key poem that captures an aspect of dailiness.

That last sentence makes me glad I'm not trying to make a living by writing literary theory or critical analysis of literature. I have that idea on the brain because today is the birthday of Jacques Derrida. Ah, the interesting turns of critical theory that occurred in the last part of the twentieth century, partly due to his writings. English departments became a more interesting place because of him. Of course, some will say that he helped bring down our noble profession, making the English major more muddled.

As for me, I'm casting blame on the corporations. Some time during my time in undergraduate school and graduate school (the 1980's, in short), we shifted our vision and began to insist on the undergraduate school as some sort of job training session. Blhh. Give me deconstruction any day. It's better than turning all our English departments into centers where we teach people how to write business letters and memos.

Sure, we can do that. We've always been a service discipline, to some extent. But we should also be a place where people wrestle with whether or not to break their poems into lines or to decide on a prose poem form, where people decide whether or not a sonnet form best accomplishes what they're trying to do or whether or not they'd better write a full-blown essay.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Songs for Bastille Day

Happy Bastille Day! Another chance to celebrate independence. You could turn your attention to fine French wine and cheese. And for your soundtrack for the feast? Might I suggest Woody Guthrie?

Today is Woody Guthrie's birthday, and mine. I've long been fascinated by Woody Guthrie, probably ever since childhood, when I realized we shared a birthday. When I went to elementary school in the 1970's, we sang "This Land Is Your Land" far more than we sang "God Bless America." In fact, Woody Guthrie wrote "This Land Is Your Land" in direct response to "God Bless America." "This Land Is Your Land" is a much better song, but of course, I'm biased.

As elementary school children, we didn't sing the most radical verse:

"As I was walkin' - I saw a sign there
And that sign said - no tress passin'
But on the other side .... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!"

But go here and read the rest of the lyrics, the first three verses of which we sang. Those verses are fairly radical, the idea that the land belongs to us all. I love it.

I find Guthrie fascinating as an artist. Here's a singer-songwriter who doesn't know music theory, who left behind a treasure trove of lyrics but no music written on musical staffs or chords--because he didn't know how to do it. For many of the songs that he wrote, he simply used melodies that already existed.

I think of Woody Guthrie as one of those artists who only needed 3 chords and the truth--but in fact, he said that anyone who used more than two chords is showing off. In my later years, I've wondered if he developed this mantra because he couldn't handle more than 2 chords.

I love this vision I have of Guthrie as an artist who didn't let his lack of knowledge hold him back. I love how he turned the deficits that might have held a lesser artist back into strengths. I love that he's created a whole body of work, but his most famous song is still sung by schoolchildren everywhere, and how subversive is that?

If I could create a body of poems that bring comfort and hope to activists, as well as one or two poems that everyone learns as schoolchildren, well I'd be happy with that artistic life. If I could inspire future generations the way that Guthrie did, how marvelous that would be. I could make the argument that artists like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and the members of U2 would be different artists today, had there been no Woody Guthrie (better artists? worse? that's a subject for a different post).

Here's a Woody Guthrie quote to help you celebrate Bastille Day and the spirit of freedom, wherever it blooms. Those of you who listened to and loved The Alarm may remember Mike Peters quoting it during concerts (want to listen? see if you can find a copy of Electric Folklore Live and enjoy that soaring music one more time). Here's the Guthrie quote, which makes quite a good vision statement, for those of you still casting for one:

"I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling.

I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built.

I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work."

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Imagining Scout, All Grown Up

A few years ago, as I read To Kill a Mockingbird again for the first time in many years, I wondered about these characters, about what happens to them as they grow up. This tendency of mine used to drive my graduate school professors crazy. I remember one shaking his head, commenting on my response to Leopold and Molly Bloom, "These characters are fiction. They're not real. They don't exist outside of this book." I had been talking about the two of them surviving their marital crisis and growing old, I think. Interesting that I remember the response of the professor far more vividly than whatever I had been saying to provoke that response.

In a different time period, I might have seen that as a sign to switch into the MFA program. But at the time, the University of South Carolina was in the process of dismantling its Creative Writing program that used to award MAs and Ph.Ds in Creative Writing to transition to an MFA program, so I didn't really see that as an option. Besides, I wanted a job teaching at a small, liberal arts college, and for that dream to come true, I knew I needed the Ph.D.

I learned to muffle my tendency to see characters as real, but as I returned to creative writing, I've found excellent writing prompts. I love imagining what happens to the main characters in fairy tales and myth. I love exploring the minor characters in these tales. I've returned to the literature of my grad school days again and again when I'm stuck for ideas. Often those threads lead me in interesting directions.

I'm afraid my depiction of Scout's future will not be a comfort. I also wonder about the timeline. Could a woman who was a child in the 1930's grow up to get a Theology degree? When did the first woman get advanced degrees in Theology in the twentieth century? A Google search hasn't told me much, so I won't worry about it too much.

Here is the poem. It is scheduled to be included in the collection Afterwords.

Scout at Midlife

Several times a day, Atticus asks,
“Who are you again?”
And lately Scout shudders
to realize she isn’t sure.

Once, she was surrounded
by people happy to help
define her, to shape
her, like red Alabama clay
transformed into a garden.

But now these people are ghosts
who haunt her thoughts.
Dill gone on to marry
Lottie Mae after Scout waited
too long to say yes.
Jem dead in a hunting accident.
Aunt Alexandra and Calpurnia both felled
by the same kind of stroke.

Now, surrounded by the rabid
dogs of self-recrimination and regret,
she has only her Ph.D. in Theology
and memories of an earlier Atticus
to remind her that she once lived
on an intellectual plane.

Atticus asks, “What is it called,
that thing between your foot and the floor?”
Scout thinks about possible answers:
a carpet, a shoe, a sock, a callus.

She looks at her framed credentials as she explains,
once again, the nomenclature
of everyday objects. Sometimes she answers
Atticus’ questions in Hebrew.
Some days, she chooses Aramaic, Latin
some other dead language.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Rejecting a Life of Quiet Desperation

Today is Henry David Thoreau's birthday. Long ago, when I was in high school, I was struck by how many grown up people talked about Thoreau as an influence in their search for a simple life. I sought out Walden, or Life in the Woods, since that was the book they most often mentioned. After 30 pages, I put it down. This book influenced these grown ups? Really? The cost of bean plants could transform a life profoundly in the 20th century?

Now, of course, I realize that many people are influenced by writers without ever having actually read their books. Thoreau has one of those personalities/reputations that affect so many of us. Even today, when I realize that Thoreau wasn't really that cut off from civilization, I feel that pull to leave it all and go back to the woods--or to a sailboat, or to a monastery, or to any place that's a bit more isolated than my current life.

I've also had an opportunity to read more Thoreau. I find his Civil Disobedience to be a far more impressive, important work.

Still, it's probably this quote that influences modern life far more than any other Thoreau quote: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

Ah, to live deliberately, to have our private lives and our public lives match, to see what's really important. I'm always surprised to realize how many adults do not do this. Many grown ups are just not that introspective, as they live their "lives of quiet desperation," to use another Thoreau quote.

I'm also surprised by how many adults have just accepted what our society tells us should be important, primarily that chase after money. I've been catching up on past blog posts, and thanks to Kelli Russell Agodon for pointing me towards this post by Joshua Becker who encourages us to stop chasing success and start pursuing significance.

One of the things I most miss about late adolescence is that sense that I could do anything: go to college, grad school, a foreign country. I miss that sense of a long life's journey stretching out in front of me, with enough time to do everything I might think about doing.

But now that I'm older, I suspect that vision was just an illusion. Now (and probably then, although I wasn't as aware of it), it seems that every time I choose to do something, several other doors close. The idea of significance might help order my choices.

Some part of me bristles at the idea of pursuing significance, though. There are days I just want to be able to relax, not to feel like my life is slipping away. I want to learn to live more presently in the moment. I want to stop always thinking about the next accomplishment that needs to be done. I want to still the voice in my head that says, "Sure it's great that your individual poem got published, but how are you going to get that book with a spine published and out into the world?"

Maybe I need to return to Thoreau's journal, or better yet, Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere journals. Maybe I need to simplify by focusing on the simple things that give me joy and pleasure: good food, good wine, a poem draft, a poem revision, time with friends, more time in the natural world, less time in front of screens. The journals of creative people remind us that a creative life expands to include all these things, while also questing for significance.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Of Spiders and Mockingbirds

Today is the birthday of E. B. White, probably most famous for writing Charlotte's Web. I remember the shock I felt in grad school, when I realized that one of the guys who wrote the Strunk and White guide was the same White who wrote Charlotte's Web. I'm always impressed by people who can write equally well in different genres, and also by people who write well for both adults and children.

I adored Charlotte's Web. It's probably one of the first books I read over and over again. I loved that the characters pull together against great odds and develop interesting, non-violent ways of resisting their oppression. Of course, I wouldn't have used that language at that time.

Charlotte's Web is why I'm not afraid of spiders. I suspect it's also the reason that I've been drawn to vegetarianism my whole life, although you wouldn't know it by the way I've been eating this week, which saw several days in which I ate meat several times a day.

I haven't gone back to reread Charlotte's Web as an adult. I suspect it would hold up well and hold my interest as an adult reader too.

Today is also the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. I didn't read this book as a child; I read it the summer before 8th grade, the summer I turned 14, and it continues to entrance me. Two summers ago, I reread it, and it holds up well. I've heard tell of young reader today who sees the setting and the characters as totally unlike anything they've encountered, but I still know Southern people with an uncomfortable similarity to some of the uglier aspects of those characters. Even in this Internet age, there are still Southern towns that are sleepy throwbacks to an earlier time.

Somehow, I grew up without ever seeing the movie. I saw it during my last year of grad school. I came in one rainy Saturday to find my husband watching it on network T.V. I plunked myself down and was hooked instantly. I've watched it several times, and I always love it.

Maybe this afternoon I'll watch the movie again. Once again, I'll admire the pluckiness of Scout and admire the integrity of Atticus. I'll yearn for the explorations of my childhood. I'll wonder if any child these days can retain that level of innocence.

I wrote a poem that imagines Scout grown up. I won't post it today, since this post is long; I'll save it for a day this week when I don't have time to write as much. Plus, it's a somewhat depressing poem, and I don't want to post two depressing poems back to back.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Oil Spill Apocalypse

While I was away, one of my poems was posted at the Poets for Living Waters site, a site put up in response to the Gulf Coast oil spill. You can go here to see it if you scroll down; I've also pasted it below.

As you might sense from the title, I seem to be working on a season. The first pantoum I ever wrote was "Alternate Apocalypse," with that same first line. It talked about dealing with the reality of global warming, which wasn't the apocalypse I would have predicted, if you had talked to me in 1985. I expected nuclear war.

As the economy crashed, I wrote a different apocalypse pantoum, also with the same first line, which talked about economic apocalypse.

So, when I saw a call for poetic response to the oil spill, I couldn't resist another pantoum. I expect to keep writing them for the rest of my life. I'm not sure they'd make a good book all by themselves. I worry they'd be so depressing taken together that no one would buy such a book.

Still no oil washing up on our reefs and shores, although I can't help but think it's just a matter of time. The Gulf of Mexico is a big bowl, after all. I'm hoping to be proven wrong--that this potential apocalypse will be one of the apocalypses that I expect but don't ever see materialize.

Alternate Apocalypse #3

We expected mushroom clouds and radiation.
We didn’t anticipate a plume on the ocean floor,
an unstoppable gusher.
We thought we would run out of oil.

We didn’t anticipate a plume on the ocean floor.
We assumed precautions had been taken.
We thought we would run out of oil.
Now we worry the flow will never stop.

We assumed precautions had been taken.
We thought there was an emergency plan.
Now we worry the flow will never stop.
We face a future of oily seas.

We thought there was an emergency plan.
We thought they cared about the environment.
We face a future of oily seas,
a fishless existence our fate.

We thought they cared about the environment.
Now we watch migratory birds slicked with petroleum.
A fishless future our fate,
we cry over lost treasures.

Now we watch migratory birds slicked with petroleum.
We hear the stories of generations living on the water.
We cry over lost treasures,
marine animals, an ecosystem, an ocean, a planet.

We hear the stories of generations living on the water.
All these cultures will evaporate:
marine animals, an ecosystem, an ocean, a planet.
We expected mushroom clouds and radiation.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Singing Along to "Grease" in the Movie Theatre

Last night, we went to a Grease Sing-Along. It's the movie, in a traditional movie theatre, but each time there's a song, the lyrics appear, karaoke style, and the audience sings along. What fun, to be allowed, no encouraged, to sing in the movie theatre. What fun to revisit this movie. Our movie theatre also had an acting troupe who acted out some of the movie, a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I worried I might find it distracting, but I basically couldn't see it. Still, I loved the fact that there are young actors out there who want to do such a thing, to act out a movie that came out years before they were born.

I talked to one woman who said this was the 78th time she had seen this movie in the movie theatre (the only movie she had seen more than Grease was Star Wars). I, on the other hand, haven't seen the movie since it was in movie theatres back in 1978. It seems strange that with cable T.V. and videos and DVDs, that I wouldn't have seen it again, but I haven't.

I had forgotten how full of sex the movie is, and how full of sexual innuendo. When I saw it, the summer before 8th grade, I think that a lot of the sexy stuff flew right over my head. Yes, I had read Judy Blume's Forever, and I had read all those 1970's sex-positive books to help kids learn about their bodies, but the actual act was something I could just barely comprehend. Watching the movie again as an adult, I'm kind of shocked at the treatment of women; I didn't remember that aspect. I thought the movie captured very well that late adolescent stage where humans who are essentially children are making that transition to adulthood, figuring out how to treat each other, how to interact.

I had also forgotten how homosocial the movie is. That scene where the male actors are singing "Greased Lightning"--very sexy, very campy, very male bonding over vehicles.

Very strange too, to see these actors in their younger versions of themselves, to know what's going to happen to them later. The scene where Danny is trying to grope Sandy's bosom, and the knowledge that Olivia Newton-John would later battle breast cancer--it felt so disconcerting to me.

The soundtrack is so singable. I loved being in that theatre, hearing our voices swell above the soundtrack. I have listened to the soundtrack again and again in the 3 decades since the movie came out (on vinyl and CD--no MP3 yet) and have memorized the lyrics. Ah, the joys of repetition.

I also loved going to see this show because our theatre is one of 17 locations in the country where it's being shown. Periodically, I try to do things that I can only do down here, just to remind myself that I really do like living down here. I also try to break my routine of coming home from work and vegging on the sofa whilst watching bad television. Going out on a weeknight made me feel so adult, even if it was to go to a campy version of a movie from my late childhood/early adolescence (real grown ups would go to a wine tasting or something). It was a treat to eat popcorn for dinner while watching a quintessential summer flick.

Now it's back to work. Today is our last day of in-service days before the quarter starts on Monday. I've had lots of days of meetings, and I'm looking forward to a day that's less structured today. Maybe I can get organized a bit more, get readjusted to being back on land, back in the office.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

What I Read During My Summer Vacation

First, a confession: I read no poetry on my vacation. For much of my vacation, I didn't have easy access to a computer or the Internet, so I read no blogs, no online journalism, no Wikipedia entries. Yup, it was back to the old-fashioned world of bound books written on paper and The Washington Post in the ink-stained fingers version (to be fair, the newspaper has mostly solved whatever problem it was that used to leave my fingers black after I read it, way back in the 1980's and 1990's).

I read novels. I'm always happy to discover that my attention span hasn't permanently shortened. I am still capable of diving deeply into a big book. It's much easier when I don't have to go to work.

I started off by reading Anna Karenina because I wanted to be free to read more modern novels during my travels. Nothing is worse than a plane yoyage with a book that is less than captivating. I blogged about my Tolstoy reading some weeks ago, so I won't rehash it here.

I decided to start my airline reading with One Day by David Nicholls, since it was the only paperback in my stack. This book takes us through the lives of two characters year by year, but on one day only, July 15. We see the two as they graduate from college and head off into the stormy years of early adulthood. We wonder if they're really right for each other. Occasionally, we see one or both of them in a particularly odious phase, but since it's one day, and by the next chapter a year has passed, we don't have the reader's dilemma of trying to care about characters who are unlovable. Instead, they seem complicated and realistic. It's a great novelistic device, and Nicholls uses it to full effect. There's quite a shocking twist near the end, but I left the book feeling satisfied. Nicholls claims to have been inspired by a several plot twists in Tess of the D'Urbervilles, but I haven't had time to go back to think about this.

Next, I decided to tackle the biggest novel in the stack, The Passage by Justin Cronin. You've likely heard of it: an apocalyptic vampire novel, about a government experiment gone awry and the world goes smash. It's the first of a planned trilogy, and I did worry a bit that it would leave me hanging. Happily, that is not the case--the book has a natural ending, while leaving readers like me thirsty for more. As I was reading it, I kept thinking that if I was a graduate student in a department that allowed such topics, I'd love to write about the influences of Stephen King upon this novel. I expected to see echoes of Salem's Lot, King's vampire novel, but I saw more of The Stand. Much of the novel's battle between good and evil takes place in the desert Southwest, which made me wonder how many other apocalyptic depictions of similar battles take place there (King's The Stand does, for example). It's a great book, very literary for those people who like to dissect novels that way, but for those that don't, the literary bits don't slow down the trajectory of the thriller aspects of the novel. It's the longest novel I've read in some time (almost 800 pages), but I zipped right through it.

Next, I read a series of linked short stories in A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. I love linked short stories that give me a novelistic reading experience, and Egan is a master here. Great characters, great movement through time and place, and even some experimenting with form (the short story as PowerPoint presentation---I didn't think it could work, but it does).

I read 52 Loaves by William Alexander. I wanted to like this book. I heard the author interviewed on a Diane Rehm Show episode. I've found with many authors, and with this one too, once I've heard them interviewed on NPR shows, I've heard the best parts of the book. Alexander takes many side trips to explore the worlds of yeast, heat, flour, and monasteries. I just didn't care about some of the subjects, like pellagra, enough to want to read about them in detail. Other subjects, like his monastery experience, I'd have liked to hear more about. His decision to bake one loaf of bread using the exact same recipe each week seemed like a hokey device to get him a book deal; I'd have found it more interesting if he experimented more.

Then I turned my attention to The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes. He explores a time during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when Science and the Arts (and to a lesser extent, Religion) weren't considered to be mutually exclusive. I'm still reading it and enjoying it immensely. It's a heavier book, and I'm appreciating that heft even more after the fluffiness of 52 Loaves.

Now, of course, it's back to work and the eternal quest to find time to do all the things I want to do, as I'm also putting in 40-50 hours of work each week and resisting the intellectual black hole of television.

Perhaps I read more poetry when I'm not on vacation because it's easier to dip in and out of volumes of poetry (the same reason that I write more poetry than anything else these days). Happily, I have a huge stack of volumes of poetry waiting for me now. More on that as I dive into them.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Well, I’m back from fighting pirates on the Chesapeake Bay—or were we the pirates? When you play with a 4 year old, it’s sometimes hard to tell. I’ve constructed a variety of forts, as much variety as you can have on a 37 foot sailboat. I’ve drawn pictures of monkeys, including a pirate monkey. I’ve written “every letter that exists” (my nephew’s request), which made me reflect on alphabets, and how few of them I can reproduce.

What else did I do? Let me reflect . . .

--I read great books. More on this in a later post. But I’ve had a fabulous time getting lost in fiction, both recently written and a classic.

--I helped prepare dinners for Vacation Bible School kids and helpers. Even though we don’t have an industrial kitchen at my church (weird zoning regulations don’t even allow us to have a regular stove like you’d have at our church), we had a great time.

--I heard the best Barbershop singing in America. My dad is a member of the Alexandria Harmonizers, and they had a huge concert on June 27. Not only did we get to hear them before they went on to place 5th in the International Competition in Philadelphia, we also heard the Westminster Chorus, who went on to win first place. We also heard all sorts of quartets. Great fun!

--I spent a week on my sister’s sailboat, with my spouse, my sister, her husband, and her son (the above-mentioned 4 year old). It’s always fascinating to me to spend time in such a different setting. It makes me think about all the things I think I need, and how living on a sailboat makes me reassess. In terms of clothes, do I really need as many clothes as I have, when I wear the same things week after week? Do I really need gourmet cooking or am I just as happy with simple meals?

--I enjoyed unseasonably cool weather, part of what made the time on the sailboat so enjoyable.

--I had fun with different art forms. My nephew loves to draw and paint, so we spent lots of time doing that. I had forgotten about the blendability of simple crayons. I spent time with the digital camera. I helped transform blankets into forts and movie theatres. We played dress up—sort of. My nephew needed a scabbard for his sword, and we played with different possibilities. We made puppets. Again, great fun.

--Playing with my nephew made me remember my favorite job. The year after undergraduate school, I worked in a summer care program for elementary school children. We went to movies, we had arts and crafts every day, we went to every local park, we read great books, we played outside and inside, and had a great summer. At the time, I made minimum wage with no benefits, which was fine for a summer, but not sustainable for a lifetime. What a shame.

--I watched chunks of The Lion King and Peter Pan, which gave me an opportunity to compare animation styles at opposite ends of the century. I'm not sure which I like better. Both struck me as gorgeous. It's also interesting to me that most children I've seen don't care about seeing a movie from beginning to end. Again, being with my nephew makes me think about narrative in different ways.

--I saw the show Rain at Wolf Trap. I don’t quite know how to explain this experience. The 4 musicians impersonate the Beatles at various points in their careers. There’s also a multi-media show. It was amazing. During parts of the show, we all sang. There I was, in a fabulous national park, as the full moon lit up the night sky, and our voices rose. I expect that when I’m 95 years old and slightly confused, I’ll remember seeing the Beatles, but it will have been this show.

In short, I had a wonderful vacation. I've returned rested and renewed--and plunged right back into a full work day yesterday, meetings and training sessions and no down time at all. I wish I had planned for a softer re-entry. But I'm happy to have had just the kind of vacation that I needed. I'm lucky in all sorts of ways: I have a great family with whom I enjoy spending vacation time, and I have a job waiting for my return, a job which I don't approach with dread.